Friday, October 27, 2017

Grettir at Thorhall-stead

Frank Norris (1870–1902)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Two drawings by American illustrator Joseph J. Gould (1880–1935) for “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” in Everybody’s Magazine, April 1903.
“Suddenly we have found that there is no longer any Frontier. The westward-moving course of empire has at last crossed the Pacific Ocean,” proclaimed the novelist Frank Norris a few months before his death in 1902. Norris saw the century of America’s westward expansion as a rich story of heroes and villains, of conflict and settlement, of “race-movements, migrations, wars and wanderings.” Yet, in the posthumously published essay “A Neglected Epic,” Norris rhetorically asked, “What has this produced in the way of literature?”
The Trojan War left to posterity the character of Hector; the wars with the Saracens gave us Roland; the folklore of Iceland produced Grettir; the Scotch border poetry brought forth the Douglas; the Spanish epic the Cid. But the American epic, just as heroic, just as elemental, just as important and as picturesque, will fade into history leaving behind no finer type, no nobler hero than Buffalo Bill.

. . . The farm folk of Iceland to this very day treasure up and read to their little ones hand-written copies of the Gretla Saga chronicling the deeds and death of Grettir the Strong. But the youth of the United States learn of their epic by paying a dollar to see the “Wild West Show.”
Norris’s longing for an epic worthy of America—worthy, that is, of a nascent “empire”—led him, as a writer, in two directions. He had begun work on his magnum opus, The Epic of the Wheat trilogy, of which two volumes were finished: The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) and The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903). When he died at the age of thirty-two, he had just started to outline the final volume, The Wolf: A Story of Europe. “Norris projected an image of American as an emerging world empire,” writes literary scholar John R. Eperjesi in The Imperialist Imaginary. “By seeing America as an empire on the move, Norris sanctified not only the nation’s status as carrier of world history but, more importantly, its actions and entanglements in the world beyond its borders.”

Yet Norris’s interest in epic literature inspired him to take a second path; among his writings are stories more directly influenced by European legends. His first book, Yvernelle: a Legend of Feudal France (1892), is a verse romance based on a passage from Goethe’s autobiography, in which a spurned woman places a curse on the next woman who kisses him. The influence of Icelandic sagas is apparent in Norris’s retelling of a folk tale, “Grettir at Drangey.” And, perhaps most surprisingly, he altogether abandons his trademark realism for several eerie Poe-like tales, such as “The Ship That Saw a Ghost” and “The Guest of Honour.”

For decades literary scholars and biographers, who had pigeonholed Norris in the vanguard of American naturalism, didn’t know what to do with this handful of writings based on medieval legends and featuring supernatural elements, and you will find nary a mention of them in most of the scholarship on his fiction. They were largely forgotten or ignored until the science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz plucked “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” out of obscurity for inclusion in the 1971 anthology Horrors Unknown. In the decades since, other long-forgotten stories by Norris have been included in horror and fantasy collections, but “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” is unique among the rediscoveries for its blending of Norris’s dual fascination with medieval legends and supernatural yarns, and it was selected by Peter Straub for inclusion in the Library of America collection American Fantastic Tales.

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Thorhall the bonder had been to the great Thingvalla, or annual fair of Iceland, to engage a shepherd, and was now returning. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Saturday, October 21, 2017


Rupert Trimmingham (1899–1985), with others
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944–1946

“Easter Eggs for Hitler.” Technical Sergeant William E. Thomas and Private First Class Joseph Jackson, March 10, 1945, during the Battle of Remagen. (Image courtesy of the National Archives.)
During World War II the Army published Yank: The Army Weekly, a magazine that quickly became the most widely read military publication in U.S. history. The debut issue appeared in June 1942, and each week the magazine featured stories and news about the war, irreverent humor pieces mocking Army life (such as the comic strip “Sad Sack,” depicting the daily humiliations of a forlorn private), and a full-page photo of a “pin-up girl,” including such stars as Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Ingrid Bergman, and Lena Horne. Originally tailored for boots on the ground, the magazine was universally read by servicemen in all three branches of the military—and by a good many officers as well. All members of the magazine’s staff, numbering 127 near the end of its run, were active duty soldiers from the enlisted ranks. At its peak 2,600,000 copies of each issue (with a total readership estimated at ten million) were printed in more than twenty local editions on presses as far flung as Honolulu, Cairo, Rome, Trinidad, and Saipan. The magazine’s raison d'être ceased once GIs began returning home and the last issue was published in December 1945, three months after the Japanese surrender.

In spite of Yank’s generally cheeky content and its sneakily disgruntled criticisms of officers and authority, the magazine was nevertheless an official military publication. So it almost certainly came as a surprise to its audience when in April 1944 the editors had “the courage to print” (to quote one reader) a letter from Corporal Rupert Trimmingham, an immigrant born in Trinidad, about his disheartening and maddening experience as a black soldier in an American railroad station under “Old Man Jim Crow rules.” Both he and the editors were amazed by the response: hundreds of letters, virtually all of them denouncing Trimmingham’s treatment and supporting Yank’s decision to publish the letter.

The letter, along with the reactions to it, was one of many incidents that helped pave the way to the eventual end of segregation in the U.S. military. A year later the Army secretly conducted a survey of white officers who had served with black platoons: although 64% admitted to initial skepticism or hostility toward having to serve with African Americans, 77% had a more favorable view after having done so—and not a single officer indicated a less favorable opinion. In addition, virtually all of the officers reported “white and colored soldiers [had] gotten along together” either fairly well or very well. “Actual friction between white and colored soldiers is said to have been confined to isolated cases involving white solders from ‘outside’ units who did not know the combat record of the colored troops,” noted the report’s authors. And, significantly, if the army were to pursue integration, an overwhelming majority of the officers were opposed to isolating black soldiers in separate battalions or companies (although only a handful recommended that black and white soldiers serve within the same platoon).

A second survey was conducted among white combat veterans who had not served alongside black soldiers. Over 60 percent responded that they “would dislike it very much” if there were both black and white platoons serving within their companies. “The implications of the survey were clear,” summarizes Alan Gropman, a retired Air Force colonel who published a history of integration in the military. “White opposition to integration decreased once men had been integrated.”

Finally, on July 26, 1948, Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered steps taken “as rapidly as possible” to achieve “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” The president established a Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity to implement the order, but the effects of the new policy were slow in coming. Gropman notes that, while the Air Force proposed and instituted its own policy (with the committee’s approval) in January 1949, “the Army tied the committee in semantic knots, claiming even after the committee had disbanded that segregation and Truman’s order were harmonious. . . . The Navy continued a policy of tokenism into the 1960s.”

For this week’s Story of the Week selection, we present the letter by Rupert Trimmingham that caused such a stir among Yank readers, as well as the reactions from soldiers and Trimmingham’s final response.

Note: As mentioned in the last paragraph, Trimmingham’s letter inspired a short story that appeared in The New Yorker. “A Short Wait between Trains,” by Robert E. McLaughlin, was published in the June 14, 1944, issue, has since been included in several anthologies, and was adapted for a short film that aired on Showtime in 1999.

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Dear YANK:
Here is a question each Negro soldier is asking. What is the Negro soldier fighting for? On whose team are we playing? . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, October 13, 2017

The Donkey Boy

John Dos Passos (1896–1970)
From John Dos Passos: Travel Books & Other Writings 1916–1941

Palma de Majorca, c. 1920, watercolor by John Dos Passos.
In October 1916, a few months after graduating from Harvard, John Dos Passos traveled to Spain, ostensibly because the trip would help prepare him for a possible career in architecture. He spent the first couple of months in Madrid and visited several towns in the surrounding countryside. Shortly after Christmas he made a trip that included stops in Cartagena, Tarragona, and Alicante. His wanderings sparked a fascination with a country he would often visit and feature in his writing. “Spain was the most important factor among many in shaping Dos Passos’s ideas and forming the way he saw the world,” writes biographer Townsend Ludington.

Like many young writers and artists of the era, Dos Passos was disenchanted by American industrialism and especially by a lack of depth in the nation’s cultural life. “We find ourselves foundering without rudder or compass, in the sea of modern life,” he complained in an early essay, “Against American Literature.” What Dos Passos admired about Spain was the splendor of its past—and the preservation of its heritage. “The wonderful thing about Spain,” he wrote in a letter, “is that it is a sort of temple of anachronisms. I’ve never been anywhere where you so felt the strata of civilization—Celt-Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, and French have each passed through Spain and left something there—alive.”

During this first stay in Spain, Dos Passos received news of his father’s death and he returned to the United States in February 1917, only to discover that his family’s estate was mired in debt. In April the United States entered the war in Europe and the twenty-one-year-old joined other Harvard graduates as members of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, a volunteer organization run by the American Red Cross. At the Verdun front in August, he endured German shelling and poison gas—an experience that increased his disenchantment with modernity. “The war is utter damn nonsense,” he wrote to a friend from the front, “a vast cancer fed by lies and self seeking malignity on the part of those who don’t do the fighting.” His criticisms in one intercepted letter—and his unruly behavior—provoked Red Cross authorities to accuse him of disloyalty, so he returned to the United States in August 1918 and enlisted in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. His unit set sail for Europe on November 12—and then found out that the war had ended the day before their departure.

Dos Passos returned to Spain in August 1919 and stayed for eight months. Over the next two years he published a series of essays on Spanish society and culture in various literary and political magazines. George Doran, who had already agreed to publish Dos Passos’s first novel, Three Soldiers, also accepted his proposal for a collection of writings about Spain. Dos Passos rearranged and heavily revised the various magazine pieces into the sixteen chapters of Rosinante to the Road Again—Rosinante being the name of Don Quixote’s horse. Half of the book relates the journey from Madrid to Toledo by two young travelers, whose Quixote-inspired adventures are interspersed with eight stand-alone essays providing a kaleidoscopic and impressionistic portrait of contemporary Spanish culture, literature, and politics.

The first of the interspersed essays, “The Donkey Boy,” melds two of the original magazine essays (“America and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “Andalusian Ethics”) into a storylike narrative featuring an American tourist who encounters and then travels with a young arriero (muleteer). A passage omitted in Dos Passos’s revision for Rosinante claimed that “the consensus of opinion of the working people of Spain who had been to the United States seemed to be that the people didn’t enjoy life there, that money was easy, that there were many policemen, and that elevators and automatic lunchrooms and electric sky signs were marvels surpassing all things.” This tension—between the alluring innovations created by American enterprise and the perception that Americans don’t do anything but work—still forms the center of “The Donkey Boy.” Or, as literary scholar Donald Pizer summarizes, “There appear, in a kind of debate, both frequent references to the continuing presences of the spirits of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in present-day Arcadian Spain and, in contrast, various modern-day Spaniards who urge that Spain emulate the commercial success and efficiency of contemporary Europe and America.”

Notes: The Mermaid (mentioned on page 16) was a London tavern frequented in the early seventeenth century by Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, and John Donne.

Most of the Spanish phrases and passages in the story will be clear from context, or from explication later in the selection, or from Dos Passos’s parenthetical translations. For convenience, we’ve listed a number of items below, in the order of appearance.

  • Qué burro la Guerra – How stupid war is.
  • En América no se divierte – In America they don’t have fun.
  • Ca, en América no se hase na’a que trabahar y de’cansar – Sure, in America they don’t do anything but work and then sleep so they can work again.
  • La juventud – The young
  • The song on page 15 – What did King Don Juan do? / The princes of Aragon / What did they do? / What did they do with such gallantry, / What did they do with such invention, / How did they bring it?
  • ¡Qué incultura! ¡Qué pueblo indecente! – How uncultured, how indecent.
  • Hija de puta – Vulgar expression; literally: daughter of a whore
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The path zigzagged down through the olive trees between thin chortling glitter of irrigation ditches that occasionally widened into green pools, reed-fringed, froggy, about which bristled scrub oleanders. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Je Suis Perdu

Peter Taylor (1917–1994)
From Peter Taylor: The Complete Stories

Detail from Vue présumée du jardin du Luxembourg [View of the Luxembourg Gardens], 1794, oil on canvas by French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The protagonist of Taylor’s story recalls this painting while visiting the Parisian gardens: “Wasn’t it from one of those awful windows that the great David, as a prisoner of the Revolution, had painted his only landscape?”
Tennessee native Peter Taylor had been publishing stories in various magazines for ten years when in 1948 Harcourt, Brace released his first book, A Long Fourth and Other Stories, with an introduction by Robert Penn Warren. The collection didn’t make Taylor famous, nor were its sales all that remarkable, but it was reviewed widely and came to the attention of The New Yorker’s fiction editor Katharine S. White. After reading Taylor’s debut, she wrote to him and asked to see his future work. His relationship with the magazine would last forty years.

In 1973 Taylor was interviewed by Stephen Goodwin, who was then working on his first novel after receiving his Master’s degree from the University of Virginia, where Taylor taught. Goodwin asked what it was like writing for The New Yorker. “It was always a pleasure to have The New Yorker edit a piece,” Taylor responded.
The little magazines show too much respect. They won’t catch you up in little inconsistencies. I once got from The New Yorker a full-page discussion about the use of light switches in a story I had sent them. But the myth that The New Yorker changes stories to make them fit the tone of the magazine is just a myth; they never changed anything of mine. They did once object to the title of a story of mine. They didn’t like the title “Je Suis Perdu.” I don’t know why. Because it was French? Anyway, I changed it to “A Pair of Bright Blue Eyes” and they printed it, and then I changed it back when it was collected in a book. “Je Suis Perdu” is obviously a better title.
Goodwin also asked Taylor to identify the favorites among his stories, and the author listed three that rank among his most famous: “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time,” “Miss Leonora When Last Seen,” and “The Spinster’s Tale.” He then added “Je Suis Perdu” and revealed the story behind the story: an incident that happened during his family’s eight months’ stay in Paris during the 1956–57 academic year:
Katie, my daughter, was the little girl who got lost in a movie theatre in Paris. When she called out to me, I didn't recognize her voice because she was calling in French. She was calling, “Je suis perdue [I am lost],” and I didn’t really pay attention to her—I didn’t know any French children.

That story was one of Randall’s favorites too. [The poet Randell Jarrell, Taylor’s housemaster at Kenyon College, was one of Taylor’s closest friends.] He even noticed that in the story the little girl uses the feminine perdue, with an e, but in the title the word is masculine, because it’s the father who’s lost.
Ann Beattie, who was Taylor’s colleague at the University of Virginia, discusses the effectiveness of this story in her introduction to Library of America’s just-published edition of his complete short fiction. Taylor “provides us with a psychological study,” she writes, “not to solve the mystery of his protagonist’s conflicting moods but rather to create anxiety with its articulation. . . . Taylor overwhelms both reader and character with the intensity of the character’s inner conflict.”

The story is divided into two parts, titled after Milton’s two companion poems: “L’Allegro” (Italian for “The cheerful man”) and “Il Penseroso” (“The serious man”). As Beattie explains:
Sometimes described as paired opposites, the poems actually embody their own contradictions in an embedded complexity that would appeal to Taylor, who never thought in terms of either/or. Also, Taylor would never invoke Miltonic high seriousness if not to alter it—in this case, by wittily playing against it. This is a story about a man who should be all right, but who isn’t.
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Notes: Chauffage central (page 473) is French for central heating. L’École Père Castor (page 474) was an exclusive, experimental private nursery school in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It was founded by writer, illustrator, and educator Paul Faucher (1898–1967), creator of the Père Castor series of books for young readers. Café Tournon (page 481), located in the St.-Germain-des-Prés quarter of Paris, adjacent to the Luxembourg Gardens, has been a favorite haunt of the American expatriate community since the 1920s.

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The sound of their laughter came to him along the narrow passage that split the apartment in two. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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